ANKARA – Russia and Turkey are facing tensions on their warming relations over differences on Syria and Libya, where the two countries have clashing interests but could choose to cooperate for mutual interests, experts said.
Turkey has sent a delegation to Moscow to seek a reprieve after Russian-backed Syrian government forces stepped up an offensive on the country’s last major rebel bastion in northwestern Idlib province, threatening a new refugee wave toward the Turkish border.
Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said Tuesday evening that Ankara asked Russia to establish a cease-fire in Idlib after the region has seen an uptick of violence in recent days.
“They told our delegation that they will make an effort to stop the regime’s attacks within 24 hours,” he told reporters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the attacks are causing an exodus toward NATO member Turkey, which is already hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world with 3.6 million.
“More than 80,000 people are fleeing the bombardment there and heading toward our borders,” said the Turkish leader on Sunday, refusing categorically to accept more refugees, while he is under heavy domestic pressure for his refugee policy.
The offensive also threatens a cease-fire monitored between Russia, Turkey and Iran in this region. Turkey has deployed several hundreds of troops within this mission in Idlib.
Moscow and Ankara have also emerging differences on the Libyan civil war where they support opposing factions.
Turkey said it could send troops to Tripoli to support internationally-recognized Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), with which Turkey has signed two cooperation agreements on maritime delimitation and defense, a move that sparked criticism from regional rivals in eastern Mediterranean.
Moscow is reportedly supporting Khalifa Haftar, leader of the rival eastern-based army, via Russian mercenaries.
“Turkey’s attitude on Libya is the strong sign of an emerging friction in Russian-Turkish ties,” said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Russian affairs analyst, anticipating that Moscow’s support for Haftar would not diminish, “contrary to what Ankara wants.”
The expert argued that differences over Libya could eventually make bilateral ties more fragile as both parties will try to consolidate their hands.
Also, the Turkish government is at odds not only with Russia, but also with leading regional actors such as Greece, Egypt, Israel and Syria.
Has also indicated that although it is unlikely to see a direct confrontation between Turkish and Russian soldiers in the North African country, the agreements between Tripoli and Ankara triggered Turkish-Russian tensions.
“Turkey is facing a scenario in which it could be involved militarily in a distant, foreign region which has no logistical or land connection to it. This carries heavy risks,” Has commented.
Can Kasaboglu, director of the security and defense research program at the Istanbul-based think-tank Edam, echoed these concerns and said in a report that “presumably Turkey will dispatch an elite joint contingent to Libya soon.”
Kasaboglu said that Turkey has limited options in the Libyan airspace except for deploying tactical armed drones as “Turkey does not have adequate naval aviation capacity to intervene in the Libyan conflict.”
The escalation in Idlib also puts Turkey in a vulnerable position within NATO and Turkey’s alliance with other members is frail over its military, political and economic rapprochement with Moscow.
Despite the escalation in Tripoli and Idlib, and the exchange of accusations between Ankara and Moscow, the pair are still expected to cooperate in Libya as they did in Syria.